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ATHLETES AS AVENGERS? A PARADIGM SHIFT IN INDIA'S SPORTS GOVERNANCE



This blog has been authored by Aakash Sharma (L) and Raj Kunwar Singh Chohan (R).



  • Aakash has been a part of the HSA Advocates' Real Estate, Projects and General Corporate team for the past two years, gaining experience and assisting the firm in numerous transactions, including but not limited to structuring, negotiations, merger and acquisitions, corporate and land due-diligence as well as providing legal advisory to clients on transactions and bids related to power projects (both renewable and non-renewable). Aakash's long-term objective is to leverage proven commercial, negotiation and legal skills to craft a career in the Indian Sports Law fraternity should the opportunity present itself.

  • Raj is currently undertaking an LLM (Master of Laws) focused on sports law at Nottingham Law School, having recently completed the Graduate Diploma in Law and LPC (Legal Practice Course), the final vocational stage for becoming a solicitor in England. He obtained his undergraduate degree in Quantity Surveying and Commercial Management (B.Sc. with Honors) prior to his legal studies. Raj aspires to pursue a career as an English solicitor specializing in commercial litigation, construction law and sports litigation.


'You have to expect things of yourself before you can do them' – Michael Jordan

INTRODUCTION


The Indian sporting hierarchy seems to be taking a positive cue out of the playbook of the greatest basketball player of all time to improve domestic sporting governance. However, we are yet to see the envisaged changes materializing into reality as a distinct absence of legislation combined with the minority voice that athletes have in the running of their respective sport, remains a major hurdle. Furthermore, lack of alternative policy obligations for the primary entities enforcing sports governance in India has eventually led to the predicament India currently finds itself in.


In the above backdrop, NITI Aayog's latest plan of revitalizing sports in India by setting a target of 50 medals for Indian athletes competing in the 2024 Summer Olympics is arguably over-ambitious given India's previous medal hauls. Multiple surveys estimate that each medal costs the United Kingdom a hefty sum of 5.5 million pounds and one should not realistically expect much until we witness such investment domestically. However, recent government initiatives such as ‘Khelo India’ and private ventures such as the ‘GoSports Foundation’ proactively encourage dialogue, knowledge-building, and action plans integral to the development of sports in India rendering NITI Aayog’s goal near-attainable. Beyond governmental and private sector investment drives, instances around the globe reveal that there is room for involvement of athletes as one of the key stakeholders in sports organizations and governance. This article explores the complexities of athlete involvement in Indian sporting governance and potential solutions thereof as it can probably prove to be the missing link between India's aspirations and its current reality.


THE CONCEPT OF SPORTS GOVERNANCE


Sports governance is a multi-layered process across all levels of sport but it is rather a 'Good Governance' model that ultimately makes a substantial difference in the longer-term. The definition of 'Good Governance' has traditionally meant overcoming challenges such as political influence and red tape by showcasing adaptability, accountability, and ambition. It is perceived as a culture that will deliver strategy and vision through policy, risk management, and proportionate decisions parallel to contemporary issues. The modern Indian sporting structure constitutes both private and government stakeholders that wield decision making powers, including but not limited to investors; central sports bodies; state federations; and private league owners. Recognizing these stakeholders and associated roles will fall under the umbrella term of 'Good Governance'.


A crucial aspect that has been largely absent from the Indian sporting canvas until recently was the active involvement of past and present athletes in the domain of sports governance. Taking account of the opinion of these athletes will likely assist in tackling almost all ongoing issues plaguing India's sports governance landscape, particularly due to its unique culture of treating athletes as demi-gods. The effective incorporation of athletes in Indian sports governance will further allow these athletes to apply their experiential learning to educate young athletes to not fall prey to the glitz, glamour, and other perils prevalent at the highest level of almost every commercial sport. The importance of paying attention to critical junctures and long-term processes rather than short-term manoeuvres will reap better dividends in the longer run.


Virat Kohli quite pragmatically opined on the appointment of Sourav Ganguly as ‘President’ of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (“BCCI”) that “Nobody understands sports players better than other sports players”. But this begs the question as to what extent does governance in sport truly sees athlete involvement? In society today, sport plays a fundamental role as it promotes togetherness, physical health, mental well-being, diversity, and inclusion. Its impact can be limitless ranging from stupendous results on the field to an equitable social impact. For instance, with PM Modi recently calling for India’s sporting heroes to spread awareness amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the voices of these individuals were heard and the benefit was observed by one and all as India safely entered and endured a much-needed lockdown to prevent the spread of the virus.


SPORTS GOVERNANCE IN INDIA


With the exponential rise in domestic sporting leagues across India, increased transparency, proper allocation of funding, and effective development of infrastructure should be the pressing priority for Indian sporting authorities. Ironically, however, the Supreme Court of India, due to recent developments, is set to consider whether the three-year cooling-off period that BCCI President Sourav Ganguly is required to enter should be amended with respect to the 2016 Lodha Committee recommendations. Many of the Lodha Committee’s recommendations encourage athlete involvement in the governance of cricket, none more so than the recommendation not permitting members over the age of 70 from presiding on the BCCI board. This depicts a conscious effort of involving individuals with a fresh and modern outlook, such as ex-cricketers.


Another recommendation of the Lodha Committee that has been implemented in recent times concerning involvement of past athletes albeit not in sports governance per se is the recognition of the Indian Cricketer's Association (“ICA”) by the BCCI. The BCCI vide notice dated 16 July 2019 bestows the recognition upon ICA and clarifies that no entity other than the ICA has been accorded recognition by the BCCI as an association of ex-cricketers. In an instance of poetic justice, this decision bore fruition poetically in the uncertain times of a pandemic this year when the ICA raised INR 7.8 Million to extend monetary assistance to 57 needy cricketers who were reportedly struggling for funds amidst the pandemic. While such efforts are commendable, there remains room for improvement as key policy changes should be made to empower former player associations such as the ICA to help maintain checks and balances on the unfettered power of sports associations and federations across India.


As we witness cricket and hockey reaping rewards of drafting in past athletes in their respective hierarchical structures, other sports in India have however not followed in their footsteps. For instance, the sport of Kabaddi which is governed by the Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India displays a rather stark contrast to sporting governance witnessed within the BCCI. This contradiction is emphasized in the ‘Pro Kabaddi League’ which is arguably one of India’s most popular professional sporting league. The league consists of a committee that oversees anti-corruption, anti-doping, and anti-racism matters but it regrettably does not constitute a single past or current Kabaddi player. Comparatively, Hockey India, the recognized governing body for hockey in India, has been ahead of the curve. Having two athlete representatives on the executive board and recently appointing Phurailatpam Nirmalata, a former state hockey player as a replacement to Asunta Lakra (former national women’s hockey player) to the executive board signifies that sporting governance is slowly opening its doors to national and more significantly state-level athletes.


Pushing the dialogue of sports governance into reality is the impending uphill task for Indian sports as green shoots concerning the readiness of stakeholders and cultural shift at the legislative level towards athlete inclusion are already evident. While legislation can lead the way, relevant policy changes at each level of sporting governance - be it central, state, or district - is imperative. A case in point is the National Sports Development Code of India, 2011 (“Code”). Section 14 therein governs 'long term development' but the section does not highlight the significance of pushing athlete involvement at the board level. While 'Good Governance' has been recognized as a concept under the Code, it fails to extrapolate it, thereby eroding its practical value.


GLOBAL INSIGHTS


In the development phase of its sports governance regime, India can draw inspiration from policies and initiatives across the world. For starters, the introduction of the USA-based ‘Rooney Rule’ – a policy obligation – in 2003 obligated every National Football League (“NFL”) team to interview at least one ethnic minority candidate for management positions. This de minimis threshold not only pushed diversity in sport but created scope for applicability in other situations such as athlete involvement in sports governance. Implementing a policy on sporting boards at all levels to obtain regular input of sports players in the decision-making process, manifests a paradigm change and can be further propelled by fining sporting bodies for failure to obtain this respective input.


Further, it was acknowledged in a 2014 FIFA ‘Governance Reform Report’ that finding room for athlete input within FIFA could prove to be difficult. The report proposed an independent body consisting of athletes to work with the respective sporting body. Applying the findings of the FIFA report, the Global Athlete Movement emerged in 2019 to give athletes around the world 'a voice' in the aftermath of the Russian doping incident and the USA Gymnastics sexual abuse scandal. This movement has conceivably triggered an unprecedented mobilization of athlete input and the democratization of sporting governance.


WAY FORWARD

To overcome its predicament, Indian sporting authorities must shift from a corporate governance standpoint and make attempts to humanize the process through 'Good Governance'. By failing to recognize and mitigate this problem, old habits will most certainly re-surface, and sporting governance will continue to flat-line, while problems such as corruption exponentially grow. This is where we believe former athletes who already have a foothold in the Indian sporting governance can lead from the front by upholding the integrity of the rules and regulations established by federations or entities such as the Lodha Committee. Given their demi-god status in the society, these actions are bound to be observed, potentially leading to a positive trickle-down effect.


The emergence of 'good governance' within the sports community of India has to ideally occur simultaneously across all direct and indirect stakeholders to make India a global force in sports to be reckoned with. The developing sports governance practice in India coupled with the coming together of historical context, institutional processes, and social elements will assure the proper timing for agenda shift and all stakeholders must be prepared in order to maximize its immense potential.


The authors can be reached for comments on their emails at aakash.sharma@hsalegal.com & raj27453@yahoo.com


Cite as: Aakash S. & Raj K.S.C., Athletes as Avengers? A Paradigm Shift in India's Sports Governance, Extra-Cover, The Sports Law Blog of India (15th Aug. 2020), Accessed at https://www.extra-cover.org/post/athletes-as-avengers-a-paradigm-shift-in-india-s-sports-governance [Date of Access].


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